The Roots of Violence

Scientists discover the earliest evidence of human-on-human aggression etched in an ancient skull.

By | November 23, 2011

The ancient cranium, bearing the mark of a fracture (red box) that eventually healed IMAGE COURTESY UNIVERSITY OF THE WITWATERSRAND

A millennia-old human cranium from China bears the oldest documented marks of violence between humans, according to a team of researchers who studied the find. The skull, which is likely 150,000-200,000 years old, was discovered in a cave near Maba in southern China more than 40 years ago. Though the gender of the individual who owned the skull in life is unclear, an international team of researchers reported in this week’s issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that a healed fracture located near the right temple was probably the result of being hit with a projectile—which would make it the earliest evidence of interhuman violence. "There are older cases of bumps and bruises—and cases of trauma," co-author Erik Trinkaus of Washington University in St Louis, told BBC News. "But this is the first one I'm aware of where the most likely interpretation is getting whooped by someone else—to put it bluntly."

The researchers also suggested, given the healing evident in the skull, that the individual lived for weeks or months after the injury, which may indicate the existence of care and support networks among ancient humans. "They hit each other, they squabbled, they had weaponry," Trinkaus said. "But at the same time, they were helping each other out."

The team also explored the possibility that the hapless individual suffered an injury while hunting a large game animal, but ultimately concluded that the fracture was more likely caused by blunt force trauma with a projectile, such as a large stone. "When you stick a spear in an animal, they usually do not appreciate it," added Trinkaus. "They tend to kick and fight—and many of these animals had horns and antlers. Can we completely rule out a hunting accident? No. But it's less likely to be that than getting hit on the side of the head with a missile."

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